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And All The Fuss About Wine Reviews…

September 24, 2013 10 comments

wine ratingsFew days ago I read an article by Joe Roberts, talking about wine reviews. The article, called “Does The Wisdom Of The Crowd Provide Better Wine Reviews Than The Experts?“, and the subsequent comments were evolving around the role of the “crowd-sourcing” in the wine reviews from the sites such as Cellar Tracker versus traditional wine critics and wine experts, the value of wine ratings and all the other critical analysis of wine. Instead of commenting in the thread, I decided to express my thoughts in the form of this post.

Warning – this might be long. You might want to arm yourself at least with one glass of wine. Or more…

It is very interesting to observe “are the wine reviews and wine critics relevant” discussions to periodically flare up all over the blogosphere and all of the digital media. Some of those discussions and opinions are quite antagonistic, from “death of Wine Advocate predicted” to “the number of wine bloggers will decrease dramatically” to “blind tasting puts wine experts to shame again”. Some of them are supported by some facts and findings which authors deem indisputable. And some are written just purely for the entertainment or quick publicity purposes.

For all of us obsessed with wine, the subject of wine ratings and wine reviews is near and dear to the heart. The world seems to rotate around those 98s, A and B, 4 stars and all other metrics. Meanwhile, majority of the wine consumers couldn’t care less. Based on the number of studies, people buy wine based on the label, advice of the store associate and the price. By the way, the price factor is funniest of all (should be a subject of a separate post) – when we buy for ourselves, we always want to find $10 wine which will taste like a $100; when we need to bring a present, we ask for the advice to find the best wine at the top of our budget, and then spend a few extra bucks just not to look cheap. In any case, very few consumers concern themselves with the ratings which are abundantly displayed in many stores (interestingly enough, there are quite a few stores nowadays which are doing away with all those rating displays). Yes, the people who buy more expensive wines are interested to know what the experts think about the wine they are about to shell $50, $80, or a $150 for. Of course wine collectors track all those ratings as they are stock tickers (well, they kind of are). But considering the world of wine, those people are an absolute minority (okay, don’t bring up the 80/20 or 90/10 – that is not the subject of the post).

So Joe Roberts argues that Cellar Tracker ratings might replace all the expert opinions simply because they are the crowd sourced and it is proven by many sources, which Joe is citing, that crowd-sourcing is the way to go in today’s world. It is stated that the crowd-sourcing works because it is proven by TripAdvisor, Yelp, Amazon and thousands of other sources soliciting people opinions. Well, may be, but it depends. Let’s look at Yelp, as the food world is probably more related to the wine world than travel or gadget shopping.

Different people review restaurant on Yelp, and for the most of the cases the reader of the review doesn’t know anything about the writer. But if you think about an average restaurant, a lot of aspects of the review are based on the common sense. The understanding of the “good service” is pretty much universal. The understanding of “clean” versus “dirty” is also quite universal. “Run down” is pretty well understood. When the food is served cold, or you have to wait for 30 minutes for a cup of coffee, you don’t have to be an expert to universally recognize it. And if you ordered steak in a restaurant, I have reasonable expectations that you know how good steak tastes like.

No, you can’t take the ratings on Yelp for granted. People get upset, people get unreasonable – true. But this is where crowd-sourcing works the best. If a restaurant on Yelp has four stars out of five, based on the average of a 150, or 300, or better yet, 1000 reviews, you know that your chances of good experience are pretty high. If the restaurant has five stars based on 3 reviews, you know that means nothing in terms of your potential experience. The fact that that restaurants are judged on the multitude of factors, many of which are universal and even independent of the type of restaurant (clean Thai restaurant with good service is not any different from clean steakhouse with good service), gives you a certain level of reliability of the crowd-sourced ratings.

Wine is different. There is no foundation to all those ratings, outside of smell, taste and ability to deliver pleasure. But – “tastes good” is highly individual. If someone only likes to drink California Cabernet, convincing the person that this Sagrantino was a great wine might be difficult. Now, if you look at the crowd-sourced ratings, like Cellar Tracker offers, it means nothing, as based on the rating alone you can’t align your base with the people who wrote the reviews. You don’t know if the person who rated that St. Joseph Syrah at 78 simply doesn’t like barnyard undertones, or the wine is actually bad. You have to read the review to try to figure out what is wrong with the wine, and why the reviewer didn’t like it, may be he was just in a bad mood or had the wrong food with it.

When it comes to the wine critics, the situation is different. Yes, I know, the most famous of them are periodically accused of bias and various forms of dishonesty, but this is not relevant here. As the critics, they are able (and expected) to judge the wine objectively. Also, wine critics typically have their area of expertise, like James Suckling focusing on Italian wines, Steve Heimoff on California or Allen Meadows on Burgundy. I’m not trying to say that if a critic rated the wine at 95, it means that this will be a great wine for you no matter what – but at the same time, that objective persistency, consistency of the ratings and narrow focus of the critic allows you to align the base, and then have a quick opinion, a probability of liking the wine based on the given rating by a known critic. I don’t buy my wines based on the ratings, and I’m not willing to pay $100 more for the bottle of Cabernet only because Parker gave it 96 versus the wine next to it with only a 90 rating – but that rating allows me to establish a frame of reference.

Let’s look at the big picture. We can see an increased interest to wine all over the world. We also see an increased wine production all over the world. People “en mass” are increasingly more comfortable and more knowledgeable about the wine, especially if we are talking about Millenials and younger generations. And that does lead to the reduced role of “The Wine Critic” (Wine Spectator, Wine Advocate, etc). But – the need for the critical information about the wine is increasing, and as people gain more knowledge and learn to trust their own palates, they are willing to take wine advice from the lesser figures than Parker or Suckling, and they are willing to take it from many different sources – blogs, twitter, web sites and other digital media outlets. People are building their own tribes. This is where Cellar Tracker comes to play – but only for the people who are inside, only for the people who uses the service and is able to align the base. My personal “wine experts” tribe consists of many bloggers I started following over the years, one by one. Reading their posts, tasting the wines they are talking about, having a dialog, I was able to build my alignment, little by little, one glass at a time. I know that I can rely on and willing to take Jeff’s (the drunken cyclist) advice for the Pinot Noir, or Oliver’s (the winegetter) for German Rieslings, Julian (VinoInLove) and Stefano (Clicks & Corks) for any of the Italian wine, or Alissa (SAHMmelier) for the wines of Texas. This is not my unique experience – I truly believe this “tribe concept” works for everybody, more and more so.

Are you still with me? Wow, I really have to thank you for sticking along. Let’s round this up. No, the wine world is not going to rotate around Cellar Tracker. Yes, the role of The Wine Critic will decrease, but in the end of the day we will still have more of them. There will be ever increasing number of people who will be willing to share their experiences (and sometimes put it in the form of numbers), and there will be ever increasing number of people willing to take that advice. Crowd-sourcing? Kind of, but very different. May be “Tribe-sourcing” is the word. The world of wine is big, and it is only getting bigger – I think we all can perfectly get along.

Don’t know about you, but I need a glass of wine. Cheers!

Wednesday’s Meritage – Wine Quiz Answer, Vines and Music, and not much else…

October 3, 2012 5 comments

Meritage time!

I don’t have much news for you for today – but let me at least give you the answers for the Wine Quiz #31 – A Guessing Game, Ultimate Challenge. In that quiz, you were supposed to match 5 white wine grapes with the 5 reviews. I have to admit – I was not very inventive, and most of the wines I referred to were from France. But it also seems that I got it over the top, as there was only one answer to that quiz – come on, people – this is only a game, there are absolutely no bad consequences, whether you answer it right or wrong! I sure hope to see more answers for the second part of the Ultimate Challenge, which will be about red wines. So the right answers are: A2, B3, C1, D5, E4. Here are the wines and reviews for you:

Chardonnay:

“An enticing, lemony white that is both aromatic and rich on the palate. Apple and mineral notes combine with the lemon flavors that glide to a lingering finish” – Domaine Michel & Fils Mâcon-Villages à Clessé 2011, WS90

Chenin Blanc:

“This has weight and depth but remains stylish, with ginger and glazed pear notes in reserve while persimmon, green almond and piecrust notes lead the way. Lovely cut on the finish keeps the ginger edge echoing. Should develop nicely in the cellar” – Guy Saget Vouvray Marie de Beauregard 2010, WS92

Sauvignon Blanc:

“Gently kissed with toast, giving the core of white peach, lemon and chamomile a broader frame of lightly toasted brioche and paraffin. A suave echo of flint chimes through the finish in this lovely rendering of the toasty style” – Henri Bourgeois Sancerre Étienne Henri 2009, WS93

Savagnin:

“Intensely minerally and smoky, with a blanket of acidity behind the apple, sea salt and anise flavors. The long finish is bracing and powerful” – Andre & Mireille Tissot Arbois Vin Jaune 2000, WS90

Viognier:

“Extremely rich and generous, with ripe, opulent peach, nectarine, apricot and tangerine flavors that are woven together on a full, lush body with smoke, spice, cedar and mineral details and a juicy acidity.” – DuMol Viognier Russian River Valley Lia 2007, WS93

As you can see, first four wines were from France, and the last one was from California. I will try to offer a higher geographic variety with the red wines quiz.

Going for the interesting news, I found one article from Dr. Vino which I wanted to share with you – it is about use of the music in the vineyard – what do you think, can the music affect the vines and lead to better (or worse) wines?

In a kind of “local news” update, I’m in Texas this week, where I will attend the GUSTO Tastings event, called “Texas versus the World”. GUSTO Tastings (which is effectively a meetup group) runs a lot of very interesting wine events here in Austin (lucky for you, people of Austin), and every first Wednesday of the month they conduct a special event where they compare Texas wines with the wines from other regions and countries. Today’s event will be all about Viognier, and I’m definitely looking forward attending it (and meeting  fellow wine blogger @SAHMMelier, who told me about this event) – for all of you who will not be able to attend it, I promise the blog post with all of the details.

That’s all for today’s Meritage – enjoy your Wednesday, folks, and make sure there will be wine in your glass (definitely will be in mine). Cheers!

 

 

 

 

Weekly Wine Quiz #30 – A Guessing Game, In Reverse

September 22, 2012 13 comments

In the last week’s quiz, you were given two reviews of the wine, and you were asked to identify the wine (from the multiple choice selection). I want to continue with that “guessing game”, but change it around. In today’s quiz, you will know the wine, and you will need to select the proper review for it.

There is no reason to be shabby with our wine for this quiz – as you could’ve guessed from the picture, you will need to select a correct review for Chateau Latour, one of the original five so called “First Growth” from Bordeaux 1855 classification, and in general, one of the grandest wines in existence.

Here are five possible review choices for you – again, all coming from professional publications (well, may be except one – you will figure it out):

A: “dense ruby/purple color as well as an extraordinary nose of spring flowers intermixed with blueberries, black raspberries, wet rocks and spice box. Deep, full-bodied, rich and intense, this gorgeous effort again demonstrates what brilliant winemaking and a top-notch terroir can produce. It should drink well for 15-20 years.”

B: “deep purple-ruby.  Pungent floral and spice notes enliven complex aromas of dark plum, cocoa and minerals.  Large-scaled and juicy, with lively acidity giving sharp definition to the uncommonly deep, pure flavors of black fruits, forest floor and dark spices.  The impressively ripe, powerful finish features youthfully chewy tannins and outstanding persistence.  This big boy will require a lot of patience:  forget about it in the cellar for at least 15 years”

C: “bright ruby. Perfumed, expressive aromas of red and dark berry preserves, smoky herbs and lavender, with a touch of licorice adding depth. Fleshy and supple in texture, offering intense black raspberry and bitter cherry flavors lifted by a spicy quality. Shows the richness of the vintage but carries no excess fat. The finish lingers with impressive tenacity and echoes the floral and smoke notes”

D: None of the reviews here are for Chateau Latour

E: “Deep, bright violet. Intensely perfumed black raspberry and blueberry on the nose, with seductive Asian spice, lavender and incense qualities emerging with air. Sappy red and dark berry liqueur flavors are lifted by juicy acidity picking up suave spice and floral pastille notes on the back end. Velvety tannins provide shape but are absorbed by the lush fruit, which carries through an extremely long, sappy, incisive finish.”

Bonus question – try to identify the vintage of Chateau Latour as well, at least the range. Again, just for fun, try to answer without using the “brute force” methods.

Have fun and a great weekend! Cheers!

Weekly Wine Quiz #29: A Guessing Game

September 15, 2012 17 comments

I have to admit – I was beaten up by some folks for the last week’s quiz, denoted as too difficult. This week’s quiz will be a traditional multiple choice type, so will see what you will think about this one.

Nowadays, wine reviews are coming from everywhere. On a high level, you got Wine Spectator, Wine Advocate, James Suckling, Wine Enthusiast, Stephen Tanzer and many tens of others, and then you got thousands of wine bloggers, store owners, educators, aficionado – fine, I know, you got the picture. All of the reviews are written in the context – here is a bottle of wine, and here is the review – so when you read it, it is easy to connect particular wine with the particular review. Now, what if we break the context link? How easy it would be to identify the wine just based on the review by itself?

Here are two reviews for you, both belonging to the “professional” category. First:

“bucolic, natural bouquet of bright red cherries, balsamic, mint and a touch of dried honey all with superb delineation. The palate is medium-bodied with wonderful delineation and supple, lithe tannins. The acidity is very well judged and it leads to a pert, tense finish of bitter cherry, loganberry and licorice. This is an outstanding wine drinking perfectly now, but it should age effortlessly.”

and second:

“deep red. Sexy, intensely perfumed bouquet of ripe raspberry and cherry with suggestions of potpourri, sandalwood and vanilla. Shows more power and darker fruits on the palate, picking up a touch of singed plum that adds a serious quality to the sweet black raspberry and cherry flavors without costing the wine any of its vibrancy. The long, sweet finish hangs on with very good tenacity.”

For the wine quiz, here are my questions:

Question #1: Are these two reviews for the same or different wines?

Question #2: Which wine do you think it is?

A. Burgundy

B. Super Tuscan

C. Oregon Pinot Noir

D. Rioja

E: Chateauneuf-du-Pape

Bonus question: How old do you think this wine is – approximately, of course?

See, it is a multiple choice, as I promised – but you will have to use the comment section. Just for fun, try to answer this question without using “brut force” methods.

Have a great weekend! Cheers!

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